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RGOD2: Wrestling with bears, an interview with honoree Eric Isaacson

I have two dominant memories of my fellow San Diegan, Eric Isaacson, who will receive an award from the St. Paul’s Foundation on Valentine’s Day for his tireless volunteer work to “Legalize Love for Everyone.”

The first memory is of Eric standing on the steps of our local courthouse and holding a large banner in front of an angry crowd of fellow protestors who had just been robbed of marriage equality in California. He stood for over an hour, silent, jaw locked like sentry outside our most important Hall of Justice.

As a married heterosexual attorney, few people knew the important witness Eric was making on behalf of his faith community, his profession and his gender. He was just as angry as we were that justice had been denied to millions of LGBT people. He was also determined to reverse that tragedy and for the next three years, wherever and whenever the issue of marriage equality came up, Eric’s commitment of time, expertise and strategy has been inspirational.

Eric is a sentry for justice and inside his sharp legal mind, he has created some of the most powerful legal Amici Curiae Briefs (friend of the court) to support our efforts for marriage equality from California to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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My second image of Eric is much more playful and illustrates his wit, humor and humility.

Two years ago while attending Equality California’s garden party at the beautiful Rancho Santa Fe home of Pamela Morgan and Joyce Rowland, Eric grabbed a large stuffed brown bear that graced their front door and began wresting with it on the ground! Eric literally has wrestled the State of California (symbolized by the bear on our flag) over equal rights for LGBT people for the last decade and he is in this fight for the long haul.

Eric is a sentry and a fighter. I am glad he is on our side! He allowed me to interview him this week at Heat, San Diego’s newest restaurant in North Park and the site of the Valentine’s Day Dinner where he will be thanked by couples and singles in our community who owe him Eric so much gratitude for the work he has done quietly on our behalf.

Albert Ogle: You are a member of the local Unitarian Universalist congregation in San Diego. Given so many religious people have difficulty with LGBT rights, what is the connection for you, your faith and the work you are doing for marriage equality?

Eric Isaacson: Growing up in Rhode Island, my family was not particularly religious so I was attracted early on to Unitarianism because it tries to avoid division based on doctrinal or creedal issues and helps people work together ... “literally walking together” for the common good.

The movement goes back to the very foundations of this country and some of the first churches and congregations in New England like Plymouth or Salem (founded in the early 17th century) or in Boston. They learned from their own prejudices and mistakes (through persecutions and even hanging of Quakers in the 1600s) to become more welcoming to everyone. It is wonderful that some of the earliest faith communities in this country now support and practice marriage equality. Christian congregations are also supported in this inclusive work by many congregations in reformed Judaism and only two weeks ago, the National Cathedral of the Episcopal Church is now willing to celebrate same gender marriages!

So I love the fact that many of the historic faith communities of this country support marriage equality, even though our opposition will claim they stand for traditional marriage. How much more can you claim “tradition” when we clearly have these historic American founding congregations on the right side of justice to support the right to marry for all? This is a message you can communicate to judges who may not be aware of this. It was news to the judges that there was this kind of support from hundreds of religious friends of the court.

Albert Ogle: How did you get involved in LGBT marriage equality?

Eric Isaacson: My congregation voted for support of marriage equality in 2004 and our legislative office in Sacramento led by the Rev. Lindi Ramsden, expanded the support to a statewide campaign. So what began with a local congregational response to the marriage cases in the Superior Court by filing an Amicus Curiae Brief (friend of the court) originally initiated by my wife, Susan Weaver, and I became a denominational response. We then expanded the work to include other faith communities through the California Council of Churches and a number of secular organizations to show that there was a significant religious support for marriage equality.

Bishop Marc Andrus of San Francisco and all of the Episcopal bishops in California and the United Church of Christ joined Unitarians and a broad coalition of churches with the Pacific Association of Reformed Rabbis to show the public and the courts that California’s religious community was not of one mind on this issue. The Unitarian Universalist Legislative Office used this as an opportunity to organize to build a network to support the right to marry.

We filed a brief on behalf of hundreds of signatories to the brief. We also wanted to make sure conservative faith communities could not claim the higher ground on this issue or to speak for all faith communities. We first wrote an amicus brief at the invitation of Shannon Minter (who argued LGBT marriage equality before the California Supreme Court) and in collaboration with a range of organizations including Equality California and California Faith for Equality.

When we then subsequently lost marriage equality, we also demonstrated the negative impact of religious funding towards the outcome that clearly outspent the pro-marriage campaign. We wrote several briefs that were also subsequently used by the Perry litigation team in the Federal challenge and cited in a number of important legal decisions including Judge Vaughn Walker’s historic decision that we hope will be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in March. The Chief Justice also cited our brief.

In the last decade, we have learned a lot about the important role these reports can play, not only to influence the courts but to help grass roots organizing in the progressive community. It also helps clergy to talk about these issues at a grass roots effort to talk about it in their congregations and to organize. We have been there at every step of the way.

Albert Ogle: Can you predict the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision later this year?

Eric Isaacson: I hope we will see a decision from the Court saying equal protection of the law written into the Constitution really means EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER THE LAW.

I am married to a woman and we have rights and benefits that same-gender couples and families do not have and these protections need to be given to all married persons equal means equal. We could also see a decision that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional to take the right away after it had been recognized in California. We could see a decision saying Proposition 8’s proponents don’t have standing to litigate or to appeal, which may leave Judge Vaughn Walkers opinion in place that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional . The best conclusion to this issue in my estimation would be the Court would rule “equal protection under the law.”


It was time to eat at this point, but Part 2 of my interview with Eric Isaacson will be in my column next week. He will be talking about strategies that could be used if the Supreme Court’s decision is unfavorable to marriage equality and how the religious aspects of marriage could be a trump card to win marriage for same gender couples rather than something negative.

For more details on the Valentine’s Dinner honoring Eric and the Rev. Mike Scheunemeyer on Feb. 14 at 6.30 pm at Heat Bar and Kitchen in North Park, please reserve your table or seat HERE.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.